Tchaikovsky. A Biographical and Critical Study
Vol. 3, The Years of Wandering (1878-1885)
W. W. Norton & Company, 1986
This is the third part of David Brown’s four-volumes biography devoted to the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and this time it is subtitled The Years of Wandering, with reference to Tchaikovsky’s uninterrupted travels before he could find himself a home after the spread of his fame (and the growing of incomes) allowed him to do so at the end of the period taken into consideration.
1878-1885 are the chronological limits of the present study. Tchaikovsky’s life is plainer and simpler to describe at this stage and The Years of Wandering could have been a monotonous book (the author himself expressed this fear), but the general lack of interesting information about the composer’s daily life permits instead to focus on his mind and thoughts, thanks to full quotes from first-hand documents, the most important and unusual is his 1884 diary, of which Brown provides a long extract. The author has also the opportunity to rectify some of Modest Tchaikovsky’s assertions and his desperate effort to describe his family (in particular the family of his sister Sasha) as a valuable support for his composer brother. This is inaccurate if not untrue and there are many references from Tchaikovsky’s letters about the unbearable situation he sometimes find in the Kamenka estate, where he spends the greatest part of his time.
This period is also prolific for what concerns music and Brown abundantly debates the composition of two operas (The Maid of Orleans and Mazeppa), three orchestral Suites, the famous 1812 Overture and the Manfred Overture, which testifies Balakiriev’s return in Tchaikovsky’s life and music. There are also Songs for children, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s stay at his sister’s house, and music for imperial occasions, such as the Cantata for Alexander III’s coronation. The imperial favour is also an important feature of this period, since our composer becomes one of the Tsar’s favourites. Brown examines every composition with the usual attention and depth and never fails to stress both their weaknesses and qualities, allowing us to understand perfectly the improvement of Tchaikovsky’s skills (note for example what the author writes about the First Suite).
This book is on the same, excellent level of the other two and smooths the way for the fourth and last volume, of which, as usual, I will write the next month.